The Unfounded Fears of Atheists Today – by Chuck Colson
Didn’t you know? The Southern Baptist Convention is going to take over the U.S. government! So says Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy—one of many anti-theist writers jumping on the bestseller-list gravy train. Well, although at least one commenter on our blog, The Point, jokingly nominated me for U.S. president, I don’t see us becoming one nation under the Southern Baptist Convention—amusing as that notion is. Nevertheless, as Ross Douthat wrote last year in First Things, anti-theocrats “assume that the most extreme manifestation of religious conservatism must, by definition, be its most authentic expression.” So we Christians are all theocrats? That’s what today’s militant atheists—or anti-theists, as I call them—would have the world believe.
Do you attend church every Sunday? Oppose gay “marriage”? Vote pro-life? Believe students should be allowed to learn intelligent design in school? Well, then of course, you are a theocrat—don’t deny it. You want to take over American government and force everyone to believe and act as you do.
Sound ridiculous? Paranoid? It is. With a profound ignorance of the Christian faith, anti-theists are cashing in on the many atheist rants topping today’s bestseller lists. In truth, paranoid books by atheists are nothing new (think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). However, today they are enjoying particularly lucrative returns from their tirades. I am sure you have seen them: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion; Chris Hedges’s American Fascists; Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation; Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great; among others. This is what used to be called in antitrust law conscious parallelism. These writers are aware that these books are selling (more than a million copies last year alone), so it encourages one atheist after another to make his case. (Can you hear the cash registers?)
In case you may still be scratching your head about that term—theocracy—likely because it is foreign to everything you believe, let me define it for you. As Douthat wrote in his article “Theocracy! Theocracy! Theocracy!”—an amusingly written column I recommend that you read—theocracy “is often used to connote government by a specific institutional faith.” Of course, the first thing you must think of is sharia law in the Middle East (and the second, “That’s not me!”). But a sort of Christian sharia is exactly what anti-theists are accusing believers of wanting to establish in America. And so they run around like so many Chicken Littles, publishing their tirades and warning that the sky is falling on democracy.
These unfounded fears may be amusing, but after we stop chuckling, we need to realize that this is a serious matter—because it is not Christianity that poses a threat as grave as radical Islam, but rather today’s neo-atheism.
What is significant here is that this is not old-line atheism. Traditionally, atheists were very serious and legitimate scholars who enjoyed sitting around in their ivy-covered towers, smoking their pipes in their tweed jackets, and discussing philosophical positivism and all of the technical processes that one advances in the process of philosophical inquiry. And they would come to what they saw as very rational conclusions: that you could not prove God, nor could you disprove Him, but the evidence weighed against Him, or there was no evidence to support the existence of God. Bertram Russell would be typical of this genre of atheists. He was almost reluctant about it. As I quoted him in my latest book, God and Government, he really wished there were a God; he just could not establish it on philosophical grounds.
The new breed however, is, as Christopher Hitchens describes himself, not just atheistic but anti-theist. They are setting out not just to disprove on philosophical grounds the existence of God or to prove that there is no basis philosophically for believing in God. They are setting out to try to purge the country of this “dangerous delusion” of religion. They think God is bad for you, to borrow Hitchens’s title. They think we should have a law, Dawkins says, that prohibits the teaching of religion to your kids, because it is dangerous to teach your kids to believe in something when there is nothing to believe in.
I think they are emboldened by the rise of radical Islam. The Islamists, which gave us the Taliban, jihads, terrorist attacks, and September 11—all in the name of religion, by the way—give all people of faith a bad name. And you will notice that a number of these writers, particularly those writing about theocracy, have borrowed the critique of Islam and its fanatical religion and transposed it and applied it to Christianity.
What is interesting—and telling—though is that if a religious voice echoes their own political views, then they praise religious involvement in public life. For example, as Douthat noted, a few weeks before columnist Gary Wills wrote in the New York Times that “Christian politics” was a contradiction in terms, he praised the role of the clergy in the civil rights movement, declaring that “there was a time, not so long ago, when religion was a force for liberation in America.” Similarly, Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, intimated that liberals should hope that “leaders on the Religious Left will find a way to channel some of America’s moral fervor into a new social gospel.” Which is it—in or out for religious contribution?
What should Christians do when faced with the accusation of being a theocrat? First of all, we need to see through this and understand the agenda here. The agenda is not atheism; it is anti-belief. It is postmodernism carried to its logical conclusion. It is dangerous only because it has become the latest fad in publishing.
Second, remind people of great Christian leaders of the past whose work—informed and inspired by their faith—led to a better life for everyone: like William Wilberforce and the end to the slave trade, child labor, among many other things; Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement; and today, recent Wilberforce Award winner Gary Haugen, who has fought to expose and end the evil of sexual trafficking.
Lastly, remember, Christians could never be theocrats because we believe in free will. Freedom is a God-given quality. So to put one in submission to religion, any religion, would be contrary to our belief about the nature of our Creator. If we were theocrats, we would not be Christians. Besides, as Douthat concludes, “no movement can claim to have arrived at the perfect marriage of religious faith and political action. Christianity is too otherworldly for that, and the world too fallen.” You can share that fact about our faith when these books come up in conversation with friends and neighbors.
And we need to be proactive in sharing the truth about the Christian faith. Because as Gina Dalfonzo writes in this month’s cover article, the new atheists are changing cultural attitudes toward Christians. If those militant atheists get their way, we may not get the opportunity to set the record straight and be heard in the public square—or engage a lost neighbor in conversation if anti-theists make up his mind first. And as we have seen happen in Europe, the less religious a society becomes, the more emboldened radical Islamists become. And that is a theocracy we do not want in place.
Chuck Colson is the founder of PFM and author of many books, the latest of which is God and Government. His new book about orthodox Christianity, The Faith, will be published by Zondervan and available in February. His other books include The Good Life (with Harold Fickett), Being the Body (with Ellen Vaughn), How Now Shall We Live? (with Nancy Pearcey), and Born Again.
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